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Inaugural security plans go high-tech

By Kevin Johnson
USA Today

WASHINGTON — Record crowds expected for President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration are prompting unique law enforcement strategies, including an unprecedented deployment of technology and a small army of police officers and military personnel, senior security officials say.

“Every element of the plan had to be tweaked to consider crowd control,” Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier says.

The FBI -- worried that crowds will slow responses to potential emergencies -- for the first time is outfitting at least 100 teams of specialists in hazardous materials, weapons of mass destruction and hostage rescue with global positioning devices, said Christopher Combs, an FBI supervisory agent involved in the inaugural security operation.

Supervisors at a local command center will track the teams on large screens so they can be quickly dispatched to possible crises.

A separate cellular telephone network is being tested for use by emergency officials in case existing systems are overloaded, as occurred in the hours after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“One of the reasons the assets required (for this inauguration) have doubled, even tripled is not because of the (terror) threat, but because of the number of people coming,” Combs said. “A problem can be magnified 10 times because of the size of the crowd.”

John Perren, counterterrorism chief at the FBI’s Washington field office, said there are no credible threats against inaugural activities. Yet because of the “anticipated crowd size,” he said, it is important for “all of us to be looking at the same sheet of music.” District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty and other officials predict crowds will top the record 1.2 million at Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration.

Northwestern University professor Hani Mahmassani said he has been advising the district’s Metropolitan Police and officials about crowd control strategies. Mahmassani, a civil and environmental engineering professor, has studied crowd behavior and the deadly stampedes that have marred annual Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca.

He said district officials are including various mass communications systems to assist with crowd control, from loud speakers and strategically placed large-screen TVs to cellphone alerts.

“Anything could be a spark,” Mahmassani said. “A person falling or tripping,” or false information circulated in a crowd. “You try to keep the psychology positive so that no false rumors spread.”

A network of surveillance cameras, most of which was installed after the 2001 attacks, will monitor crowd size and movement, he said.

The overall security operation is being overseen by the Secret Service. In the event of a crisis, the FBI would lead the subsequent investigation.

Combs said federal investigators also have digitally mapped the entire Inaugural Parade route, from the U.S. Capitol steps to Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House.

Officials can refer to parade route images, down to the locations of trash cans and light poles, in part to more quickly deploy response units, he said.

The site-survey technology also has included an electronic review of buildings along the parade route and possible locations that could provide vantage points for possible snipers.

The technology has been used before, but Combs said investigators are now able to share the survey information more broadly and quickly than for previous inaugurations.

“The buildup of the public security infrastructure (including security cameras) has made it so much easier,” he said. “Connections can be made with a couple clicks of the mouse.”

Copyright 2009 USA Today

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